Monday, July 11, 2016

The New Masters of American Folk Music

"Manifest Destiny," the idea that the United States was destined to control the land "from California to the New York Island, from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters," was well ingrained in the American psyche by 1845 when John O'Sullivan first coined the phrase. By the time of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), the relentless westward pressure of American settlement consolidated control over California. The deal was sealed with the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada Mountains west of San Francisco in 1849, and the subsequent rush of hundreds of thousands of white adventurers of European extraction to the West Coast. California was admitted as the 31st state of the Union on September 9, 1850.

As they came west, the settlers brought with them the music of the British Isles, Brittany, France, Spain, and all the European lands. And once on these shores, of course, the music mixed with African influences and Native American influences. Woody Guthrie was an inheritor of these musical traditions. Jazz, the blues, rock 'n roll, punk, funk, Country Western, and hip-hop have all fed off these traditions. The underlying traditions live on, vibrant and healthy, today, thanks in large part to an extraordinary generation of musicians who delved into these traditions in the 1960's, sought out old masters, studied at their feet, became new masters, shared and carried it forward.

One place you can find this bedrock of American music is Fort Worden by Port Townsend, Washington, where the 40th edition of the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes has just concluded.

Nation building requires borders and ways to defend borders, but it also requires music. In 1846 President James Polk charged the U.S. armed forces to identify sites suitable for fortification from San Diego to Puget Sound. Washington became a state on November 11, 1889. In 1891 a naval station was built in Bremerton, WA, and soon thereafter construction started on three forts to protect the entrance to Puget Sound against possible seaborne intruders. Fort Worden was the jewel of these fortifications. But no intruders ever came and after the Korean war (June 25, 1950-July 27, 1953) Fort Worden was decommissioned and turned over to the state; since 1971 Fort Worden has been opened to the arts: writers workshops, dance workshops, blues, jazz, voice programs, youth programs, and every July the American Festival of Fiddle Tunes. The role of Fort Worden has changed from nation building to nation sustaining.
Fort Worden, WA/Nikles July 8, 2016
For 40 years Fiddle Tunes has nurtured, celebrated, and passed on to the next generations the music first disseminated by gold rush prospectors, wagon trains, and ships rounding Cape Horn. The program directors at Fiddle Tunes (Suzy Thompson has done a wonderful job for the past six years) have sought to bring authentic masters in the traditional styles from all over the Americas to perform and teach. This year the faculty was to include Terese Rioux, deemed "la reine des violoneaux" by her community in Eastern Quebec. Terese Rioux  took to the fiddle early, soaking up the sounds that French settlers brought to Quebec in the wake of Jacques Cartier, who planted a cross on the Gaspe Peninsula on June 24, 1534 and claimed the region for King Francois I of France. It was not to be this year. Health concerns kept the 80 year old Rioux from traveling. But in her place came Lisa Ornstein, a paragon of the new masters of traditional music.

Lisa Ornstein came from a musical family. Her mother was a harpsichord player at the highest level  and her sister is a professional classical violinist. Lisa took up the violin at age nine, and by age 16 she became interested in Old Time music. The next year she was lucky enough to snag an internship at the Library of Congress's archive of American folksongs, headed for a long time by Alan Jabbour. There she transcribed field recordings of Henry Reed (1884-1968) and got the bug for seeking out authentic source materials and authentic players. In 1975 the National Endowment for the Humanities sponsored her with a grant to spend 12 weeks to study and record fiddlers in Vermont and North Carolina. It was money well spent. Lisa has been giving and giving ever since.

On her quest for fiddlers in North Carolina Lisa Ornstein befriended the renowned Old Time fiddler Tommy Jarrell (1901-1985).  By 1978 she helped record what became one of the seminal records for the new generation of Old Time musicians ("Ship in the Clouds").  If you look at the liner notes, you'll see mention of other young (at the time) musicians who have become new masters of American Folk Music, like Pete Sutherland and Bruce Molsky. Sutherland was also at this year's Fiddle Tunes.

After college, Lisa Ornstein obtained a one year fellowship to study and document traditional French Canadian fiddling. This turned into a life long love affair with French Canadian fiddling. She stayed for 12 years in Quebec and studied the local masters, like Terese Rioux, and many others. Lisa Ornstein has become a new master and in the process she has helped to carry this traditional art form to new heights.

The new masters of American folk music have had an advantage. They have been able to make a living with this music. They haves been able to travel. They have learned how to organize, archive, and pay attention to details in college. Some of them have PhD's in ethnomusicology. Despite what some would say... these are helpful and good tools. And then there are recording devices. From early field recordings to the smart phone, recording and distribution of these oral traditions has become ever easier, even if playing the instruments has not. Tommy Jarrell worked in road construction until his retirement at age 65. He had no recording devices. He did not have the luxury and opportunity of travel.  He played dances, events; he played for gatherings of friends, but fiddling was secondary to physical, tiring work. The New Masters have been able to dedicate a career to the study, playing, and teaching of traditional music. And they've had tools and advantages, including state support, community support, technological support, and the support of festivals like Fiddle Tunes. The music has benefited; we have all benefited.

Fiddle Tunes started a trend. Forty years ago it was one of only a handful of festivals dedicated to traditional American music. Today there are hundreds of camps all over the country. And Fiddle Tunes has expanded to embrace all of the traditional music of the Americas. This 40th anniversary year boasted masters from South America, Central America, the United States, and Canada. More than 500 participants of all ages, me among them, have brought their fiddles, guitars, banjos, basses, dulcimers, accordions, mandolins, and piano chops to Fort Worden to share this music, study, learn, listen to the (mostly) new masters now. We came to be inspired, but above all we came to celebrate this traditional American folk music. The music would be less vibrant without the new masters who generously dedicate themselves to this music and share and encourage and inspire the rest of us.

And here are two of my favorite new masters, Liz Carroll and Pete Sutherland. You can find their recordings HERE and HERE.

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